Oxford Literary Festival: Philip Pullman

“Writing is tyranny. Reading is democracy.”

Philip Pullman

So earlier today I saw Philip Pullman interviewed by the Sunday Times‘ Nicolette Jones at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, as part of the Oxford Literary Festival (one of the few advantages of being in Oxford at Easter). Incredibly, it’s been 20 years (20!) since Northern Lights was published.

What struck me at first (I was on my own, so had plenty of time to be struck by things while everybody else was busy sitting down and chatting about the weather) was how old the audience was. And I don’t mean “old” as in OAP, bus-pass, senior citizen old; I simply mean that, for a YA trilogy, the audience was overwhelmingly adult. Sure, there were plenty of odd fangirls like me (this is Oxford, after all), but there were also many extraordinarily normal-looking people sitting and waiting avidly. It didn’t seem like a children’s audience; and nor did it seem like a fantasy audience. It was a literary audience.

Which is interesting, because one of the things Pullman talked about was being published as a children’s author, and how this saved him from being lumped in with adult fantasy authors, “all orcs and elves and stuff”. (It’s just as well that he wasn’t speaking to a fantasy audience, because they might have started throwing tomatoes at him at this point.) Oddly, for an author whose books have hitherto been almost exclusively fantasy narratives, he claims that he never liked reading fantasy; which sounds to me as if he simply never discovered any good fantasy, especially when he went on to inform the room that “fantasy readers never read anything else” (flatly untrue) and that non-fantasy readers don’t touch fantasy (possibly a little more true).

And it was all going so well…

However, Jones kept the interview moving swiftly, so that no-one had time to get very annoyed, and Pullman talked about the democracy of reading (as opposed to the tyranny of writing), and the origins of Lyra (look up “feisty” in the dictionary, he said, and you’ll stop wanting to call Lyra that), and the various adaptations of his work (it’s clear he disliked the film, but didn’t want to say). He read the part from The Subtle Knife where Will and Lyra first meet, and also the beginning of a new audio story, “The Collector”, which appears to be about a painting of a strange blonde woman and a statue of a golden monkey which turn up together in the strangest of places. Pullman has a lovely reading voice, it turns out, rich and smooth and expressive and surprisingly strong for such a frail-looking man (he had to leave for a few minutes halfway through: “you’ll have to excuse me, I’m not feeling well”).

The hour flew by, surprisingly enough, and soon it was time for audience questions. He dodged a question about Dust by referring to an upcoming work, The Book of Dust (I got the impression that Pullman, for all his insistence on the democracy, the openness, of storytelling and reading, is cannily aware of his own marketability; his first reaction to his film deal was, in his own words, “What a lot of money!”); was flummoxed by one of the few children present who asked what Lyra would be like as a parent; and pronounced that his own daemon would be a magpie or a crow, since storytelling is essentially a form of thieving. The final question was perhaps the only one that hinted that Pullman’s readers might also belong to a genre community capable of reading intelligent narratives: “Do you miss Terry Pratchett?”

And everyone felt suddenly sad again.

I was mildly disappointed that neither Pullman nor Jones seemed very interested in plumbing the depths of the Big Ideas of His Dark Materials, of which there are so very many. Pullman clearly felt uncomfortable discussing his own religion, and shot the question down quite quickly; and any further discussion of Dust or daemons or the Magisterium was limited. While Pullman is an engaging and intelligent speaker, and an excellent writer, I felt like I wasn’t hearing anything I hadn’t heard, or read, before.

Also, I’d really like it if genre writers would stop dissing genre. Thank you so very much.

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